Follow the money

What makes a good book? Depends on whom you ask: publishers or accountants

What makes a good book? And who are the best authors? If the literary prizes are to be believed, top of the list are esteemed names such as JM Coetzee or Hilary Mantel, with their tales of grim South African life or the psychology of Tudor England. But are they the novels we're really reading? The evidence suggests not. Forbes magazine's list of the world's highest paid - and most successful - authors, released in its latest edition, includes writers famous for thrillers, cheesy romances, children's adventures and the odd high-profile teenage vampire tale.

There's not one literary novelist. Meanwhile, the only Booker-longlisted title in the top 10 fiction chart in the UK at the same time was Room, Emma Donoghue's book inspired by the Josef Fritzl case. And it sold fewer than 2,500 copies. Obviously, there's no accounting for taste, but the disconnect between what we clearly like to read and what we're told we must like by the critics has surely never been greater.

Top of the list is James Patterson, the thriller-novelist-turned-writing-powerhouse whom Forbes estimated made a staggering $70 million (Dh2.6 billion) over the course of the last 12 months. Perhaps that's unsurprising considering the sheer amount he publishes with his team of collaborators, all beavering away under the Patterson banner. His latest writing contract, it's said, committed him to deliver a frankly ridiculous 17 new books by the end of 2012.

But $70m a year is still an incredible statistic when combined with the near total lack of critical acclaim he's had throughout his 80-book career. This is a man, after all, who's produced more bestsellers in the 21st century than John Grisham, Tom Clancy, JK Rowling and Dan Brown combined. But it says much when even Stephen King - third on the Forbes list at $34m - is prepared to call him a "terrible writer".

Patterson has always aggressively marketed his own novels, but the best advertising campaign can't mask a bad book. An interview in the New York Times earlier this year came close to revealing his secret. "I'm less interested in sentences and more interested in stories," he said. And it's true: his books have no background and barely any description or scene setting. It's all plot, like a blockbuster movie.

If you want an easy page-turner, Patterson is the master. "Thousands of people don't like what I do," he continued. "Fortunately, millions do." It's a situation the romantic novelist Danielle Steel - fourth at $32m - can probably empathise with. There are 580 million copies of her books in print, and yet she's lucky if she ever gets reviewed by a serious newspaper. Nobody is suggesting she should be nominated for literary prizes, even if Ion Trewin, the administrator of the Booker, said earlier this year that he could envisage a time when a romantic novel would win.

But the key to Steel's popularity isn't that she's a challenging writer of brilliant prose; it's that she understands that love, romance, melodrama and strong heroines make for great escapist stories in which we all still like to immerse ourselves. Which is why Stephanie's Meyer's Twilight saga is so successful. It rehashes those exact ideas for a younger audience, played out in a vampiric, coming-of-age drama. Meyer sits at No. 2 in the list because her earnings include film rights, and the latest adaptation hit cinemas this year.

But there are still 100 million people who own one of her novels. And they're so cleverly addictive that if you have one Twilight book you absolutely need the rest. So if the Forbes list reveals what people really read, then it seems to prove that people know what they like, and like what they know. And yes, that will include tiresomely predictable police procedurals and cheesy romances. But this doesn't have to be a depressing indictment of our reading habits, nor do literary columnists such as the author Philip Hensher need to be quite so snobbish about the bestseller.

In the British newspaper The Independent last week, he wrote that the name of the most successful author in the world (James Patterson) suggested absolutely nothing to him, and that the Meyer book he had read was "the most awful tosh". Hensher is entitled to his opinion, but most people don't, these days, consume their culture based on strict genres. I've read almost half the novels on the Booker longlist. But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy reaching for JK Rowling's books (she's 10th on the Forbes list). Ken Follett's new undertaking, Fall Of Giants, is a historical epic from a thriller writer who sits between Danielle Steel and Dean Koontz on the Forbes list. But this September, many will buy it, as well as the eagerly awaited new work from the critically acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen.

Commercial and literary fiction may seem like two completely separate worlds, one enjoying the sales while the other attracts the prizes and column inches. But that's not how readers see it; they just want the right book to suit their mood at a particular time. So by that rationale, perhaps the general public will be encouraged by the least exclusive and most "populist" Booker since 2001, when Philip Pullman, Nick Hornby and Ian McEwan were all featured.

Admittedly, that still hasn't translated into the 2010 crop being popular themselves in terms of sales, but it's a start. And for that reason, I shall be routing for Christos Tsiolkas at the Booker Prize. His soap-opera-gone-crazy novel The Slap really does have something for everyone. And if he does win, perhaps I'll celebrate by, well, beginning another new James Patterson book.

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